Phonology of Sign Language

In spoken language, phonemes are the smallest unit of a language. In ASL, there are five different parameters that make up an equivalent to phonemes.

  1. Hand shape: the exact position of the hand, or the sign
  2. Palm orientation: is which direction is the palm facing?
  3. Movement: in what order are the hands moving, and in what way are they moving?
  4. Location: in reference to the body, where are the hands positioned when the signs are being made?
  5. Non-manual markers (NMN): non-manual markers consist of facial expression, shoulder raising, head tilting and/or mouthing.

One single sign consists of all of these parameters. Just a slight change in any of them will result in a new meaning of the word. The only exception to this rule are the non-manual markers. Non-manual markers are generally used based on personal preference,not everyone uses them, and they are not necessary when understanding a sign.

natives., A. (n.d.). Phonology in American Sign Language / ASL. Sign Language - ASL. Retrieved May 16, 2011, from